From “the city of dawn” to the “city of the masses”
November 19, 2017
Friday. I leave Auroville with Mani at 10 am – we are planning a detour to the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in Pondicherry. In the middle of a small garden there is a tomb-like marble construction with flowers on it. People kneel down and pray or meditate. I follow the stream and we are pushed into the bookshop – that was it. But where are all the others going? Finally, I realize that there is an even longer line at the other side of the building to get into the Ashram itself. Bad luck: The rooms of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother are open today – a very special thing and Anusha told me about that very strong energy emanating from these chambers – so hundreds of villagers and tourists have come to see them. They are guided to a giant bamboo mat where everybody is sitting cross-legged, waiting. “At least 45 minutes”, one volunteer guard says. I reluctantly decide to leave, the long drive to the airport is in the back of my head. So, I pick up my shoes, just to take them off again a few minutes later: I go see the temple nearby.
After patting my forehead with white ash – because all the others in the temple did – I walk back to the car. Mani is ready and we start to Chennai – just once stopping for a sweet chai tea and biscuits and lunch at Star Briyani (rice and chutneys on palm tree leaves and I regain my belief in good tandoori !!). We ignore Mamallapuram – and I read the wikipedia text about the city on Mani’s smartphone. Enough! We cannot stop everywhere – even if it is an Unesco world heritage with temples stemming from the 7th and 8th century.
The flight to Delhi is calm, the food snack is hilarious (dhal gravy with some kind of vegetarian potato pancakes and as a dessert a sweet coconut candy) and my Indian neighbor gives me a ten-minute-lecture on life. Do I have a magnet in my pocket? Do I draw these kind of people to me, unconsciously? Anyway, I again enjoyed it very much. He is a mechanic on his way to Michigan, USA, and we start talking about being away from home, meditating and praying. “You can have your own temple with you all the time”, he says, “here”, and points to his heart. “God or a higher force will chose you to when it is time to meditate. Then you will know”. I do not really know right now what he means but goes further. “You cannot change or chose anything in life. Take your job. Journalist. The job has chosen YOU. You cannot do anything about it. And so it is with everything. Things chose you, it is all already written somewhere”. There it is: the fatalist but in a way relieving thought that do not have to rush, force yourself into something or strive desperately for this or that. You won’t interfere with destiny anyway – no matter how hard you try.
With exiting Delhi airport I exit this all nice and cosy atmosphere and reality hits hard. I am in an 11-million-people-city that a chief minister lately called a “gas chamber”.
Delhi has become a gas chamber. Every year this happens during this part of year. We have to find a soln to crop burning in adjoining states
The smog makes me frown and my transfer buddies (“Women on Wheels”) are not there. What now? I start getting the helpless-girl-look on my face when I realize that I cannot call the emergency GAdventures number in Delhi and an airport official is so kind to make the call for me. He shouts something into his phone and ten minutes later two small boys (“Men on Wheels”???) arrive – with a lot of excuses and a long list of travelers, including my name. Yes! They ask me to wait a little bit longer and they disappear again. I wait a “little” half an hour longer and one of the guys comes back. He directs me to the taxi stand. There we wait again. He seems to organize my transfer spontaneously with one of the taxi companies. When I hesitatingly address the fact, that I expected women to pick me up, he just says: “Problem, problem. With the car. Traffic.” Mh. That seems to be the overall problem here. But after another 15 minutes we end up in a black van together with a cab driver and we head out of the airport area. Anger is crawling up in me. I am tired, it is late, and although a trivial thing like a transfer has been planned and communicated months ago – it does not go as planned. I could have been on the road 90 minutes ago but I am trapped in my old travel routine and that is: relying on an agency, not deviate from the plan. I feel this won’t be the last hickup tonight. Or is it paranoia? In the very fancy hotel – The Piccadily – I get my key card quite quickly and speed to my room. It does not work. Jesus! I go back down – luggage on the back – the card is checked again and the receptionist sends me back up. Key card doesn’t work. I hear myself cursing silently, my jaw tightens (instead of clenching my fist) and I have to hold myself back from jumping over the reception. I insist on somebody bringing me upstairs and they are all so very nice – why can’t I stay centered? Maybe these kind of high class hotels make me an asshole. Too high expectations. High expectations almost always fail. Note to myself: Stick to zero expectations – stay happy.
The next day, after a divine breakfast (with dhal falafel, all kinds of Indian chutneys, a warm spongy bread and pineapple yoghurt), I meet one of Stefan’s old friends in Delhi at Rajiv Chawk (Connaught Place). Vikram warned me: Indian people tend to be late. He is on time, I am late. The journey to our meeting point – the old closed and deserted Regal Theater (the colonial cinema will be turned into a multiplex, what a crime) – is my first adventure since the metro and the streets are packed and two thirds of the folks in public are men who obviously do not see a European woman too often. The fact that two thirds of them are only half my size makes me feel a bit more comfortable.
Vikram and I decide to have a coffee (unfortunately in a Starbucks) and plan our day. Suddenly, again, there pop up topics like rebirth and fate – or as Vikram corrects me: Karma. “There are three strings determining Karma: the personal, the collective and the environmental. They all crisscross.” Vikram tells me about déjà-vus he had when he visited Germany (Berlin, Hannover, Gütersloh, Munich…). “I had an epiphany”, he tells me, a sensation. “In a past life I have been a famous German writer. I can feel it.” Vikram works as a drama therapist with juveniles and has also studied non-violent communication. He reads and has read a lot. I ask him, whether he knows from any other of his past lives (because everybody has a an infinite number, according to Hinduism). He doesn’t. Am I naive? Am I needy to believe such things? What I know is: He is sane and seems trustworthy. Why should he invent such a story? And who is allowed to decide that visions of former lives, feelings of an epiphany, are a fantasy?
We head out, the destination is lively Old Delhi in the north and one of the biggest mosques in India: Jama Masjid. We get off the metro one stop earlier and take a cycle rickshaw – my first time on such a bumpy thing! I hit my head right away and quickly grab the “handrails” tight.
The mosque is closed because of prayers going on, so we decide to head to Lal Qila, the red fort. Cannabis is blooming in the ditch around the entrance and while I am waiting for Vikram to pay his ticket (there are different lines for foreigners and locals) I have been the star of at least a dozen selfies – many people want to have a snapshot with the woman who has white skin, long brown hair and a face mask. In Germany, this would be kind of racist – but ok! I smile as long as it comes from the heart.
We walk through the fort site and take pictures of the buildings made of sandstone and marble. It looks like it could be a perfect film scene. “Oh, have you seen this before”?, asks Vikram. No. No déjà-vu. I grin.
We take a Rickshaw back to the mosque. Although the sky is partly clear and the smog seems to be not as bad as I feared, I wear my mask. I am spotted a s European tourist anyway, so this does not make it any worse. Only very few locals wear protection.
Before we have our second try at the mosque Vikram shows me one of his favorite restaurants: Karim’s – one of India’s most famous restaurants. We have lamb, meatballs, a vegetarian curry gravy with feta cheese, a naan-like bread and sweet bread. What a feast! After lunch (at 3.30pm) we face Murphy’s Law: The mosque is closed again for prayer. But the guard sends us to “Gate 3” that is supposed to be open. And again: We hire a Rickshaw driver and move to the other side of the complex. Just to learn: No, this entrance is closed, too – there is a prayer going on, you dumbasses! (Ok, the latter wasn’t said out loud). A dealer wants to sell me a small souvenir basket with two snake heads coming out. I erupt in laughter – and Vikram too. “Let’s go”, I say, “I’ll try tomorrow or so”. But Vikram holds against it: “If this happens twice, it is just not meant to be that you go in. Have a different experience instead. Go to the Safdarjung mausoleum tomorrow.
We change plans. The next aim: Dilli Haat – a half an hour metro ride away on the yellow line between north and south Delhi.
Dilli Haat appears like a trade fair – but not only for tourists. In winter, Vikram says, Delhi people awaken and go out more often because the temperatures are bearable. The vendors come from all over India – the stalls represent the different states and sell clothing, jewellery, accessories and antiques. We have a last fruit beer (Vikram: “childhood memories!”) together, then Vikram has to rush off and I dive into shopping until the sun sets. With my plastic bag and the torch of my smartphone I make my way to the street curbside – collecting strength for the last challenge of the day: crossing a six lane street with no traffic lights to get to the metro station. How did Vikram stop this craziness before? Fortunately, I am not the only one. I observe the locals who are also leaning towards the street, watching the cars, trucks and electric rickshaws fly by. One of them moves, I hold up my light (no idea whether any driver cares) – and run!
On Sunday, I go exploring Delhi on my own. I catch a metro and a tuk tuk to India Gate – a memorial for the casualties in World War I. Now this is getting touristy!
I walk like in a slalom, going round food and toy vendors and people who offer to take a picture of me and the Gate. A tuk tuk driver sees me studying the Delhi map and offers to drive me around. We agree on a price and he seems to have some good ideas – so off we go. We drive past the president’s house and the parliament to a Mahatma Ghandi museum. It is the place where Ghandi spent his last days before he was assassinated.
After this short history lesson we drive to one of the less crowded mausoleums: the tomb of Safdarjang. The garden is huge, the building rotten and on the edge of the mausoleum a couple is shooting “pre-wedding photos” – one of the relatives tells me.
The last stop is a very strange experience. We “tuk tuk” to the Lotus Temple. After waiting in line for half an hour I learn that this is not a Hindu but a Bahai temple – a religion originally from Iran. In the surrounding garden all people have to line up again, finally take their shoes off and then step into the Lotus building one by one. The interior is a modern wasteland. No ornaments, no colors, no candles no nothing. Some rows with benches and a guy is singing.
After literally one minute of sitting, the singing stops and we are guided out of the temple after one hour of waiting. But all the families and even the small children seem content with this kind of (sunny!) sunday afternoon activity. I am done for the day: this city wears you out! The masses of people, the noise, the fumes. But I am grateful: The smog has cleared significantly and the temperatures are just perfect. Traveler’s luck.
This was my one and only day alone, maybe one of the last occasions to have stable hotel Wifi and no alarm clock ringing early in the morning: Tonight I meet my GAdventures group and our CEO (“Chief Experience Officer”).